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The Importance of Setting Boundaries for Kids

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
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Being the Bad Guy

One of the most difficult parts of being a parent is knowing when to say no. Generally speaking, once a child learns to speak and understand language, any given parent soon reaches a point when they feel like every other word out of their mouth is “No” or “Stop.” And just about every sentence they say to their child begins with “Not inside,” or “You can’t do that here,” or “Not on the couch,” or something along those lines.

Single parents have it particularly hard because there’s not much of a chance to play “good cop/bad cop” with the other parent and all of the discipline falls to them. Although saying “No” can be extremely tiring, frustrating and can feel quite bad at times, parents should rest assured that it’s an absolutely essential aspect of parenting and that what they’re doing when they say “No” to their children is one of the single best things they can do for their child – especially when their children are young.

Setting Boundaries: The Earlier the Better

The thing that’s happening when a child hears “No” is that they’re learning boundaries. Boundaries are important for young kids to learn from parents because they’re the first stepping stone in how an individual gradually learns to abide by the vast set of written and unwritten rules that make up modern society. In short, the boundaries learned at home, early in life, are the first exposure a child has to the world as it exists outside the home, and learning boundaries early enables children to integrate themselves more easily into the various social situations they encounter as they grow and mature. First at home, then at school and then out in the world—this is the basic progression of an individual’s experience with boundaries, and each step builds progressively on the one before it.
Without adequate and reasonable exposure to rules and boundaries at home, a child will have a hard time with the rules and boundaries they encounter at school. And if they aren’t exposed to boundaries at school, then they are less likely to be successful in navigating the rules and boundaries they encounter when they eventually enter society at large. For parents, the key to setting boundaries is not so much in actually saying “No.” It’s knowing how to say “No.”

The Authoritative Approach

Recent research into parenting styles has shown that there are three primary approaches to raising children. With some variations, the three styles are known as the Authoritarian Style, the Authoritative Style, and the Indulgent Style.

For parents who use the Authoritarian Style, everything is black and white. These parents rarely explain rules and consequences. This is the classic “my way or the highway” approach.

In the Authoritative Style, parents set firm boundaries but take the time to explain to kids the whys and wherefores of the rules—there may be some negotiation around the rules, but for the most part, Authoritative parents stick to their guns, and kids understand what the rules are and why their consequences are in place.

In the Indulgent Style of parenting, there are few rules and even fewer consequences. Indulgent parents believe that kids are born with the instinct to know what’s right and wrong for them. Though there are occasionally rules present in an indulgent household, the consequences are almost always negotiable.

Research tells us is that the most effective of the three parenting styles listed above is the Authoritative Style. Parents who create an environment with firm rules and consistent consequences generally tend to raise kids who understand what rules are and why they’re in place. If a child breaks a rule, they understand that it’s their decision and is prepared for the resulting consequence.

How to Take The Authoritative Approach

Here are some helpful tips on creating an “Authoritative” atmosphere in the home:

  • Understand the difference between discipline and punishment. In a nutshell, punishment is punitive in nature and involves little communication between parent and child. In contrast, discipline is educational in nature. It involves open and direct communication between the parent and child.
  • Be firm but loving. Kids need boundaries—without them they lose their way. They need clear rules and consistent consequences. But they need them to be delivered with love, understanding and kindness. Talking about the reasons for both rules and consequences helps kids understand why they need to follow rules. They don’t just follow them out of a fear of the negative consequences of breaking them.
  • Don’t act out of emotion. If you’re angry with your child over a particular behavior, step back. Give yourself a short time-out before implementing a consequence. Take a deep breath. Return to the situation when you’ve calmed down and can speak to your child in a calm, reasonable and rational manner. Kids internalize tone of voice and expression more than most parents realize. They will be more likely to respect rules and their consequences if they feel their parents are speaking to them with love, respect, and kindness.

Setting Kids up for Success

Kids eventually grow up and leave the nest – that’s the cycle of life. To adequately prepare for life as an adult, kids need to have a solid understanding of rules and consequences. Because that’s how society works. Out in the world, we call rules laws. And everyone knows they come with serious consequences. In the workforce, we call rules company procedures. And the consequences can be anything from losing a job to lack of career advancement to possibly not getting a job in the first place.

It’s the parent’s job to give kids their first experience with these concepts so that they can translate them into practical terms when they grow up. The earlier parents start creating firm and loving rules and consequences, the better off the child will be. Kids who have no concept of firm boundaries will have a difficult time adjusting to life when they find out that some rules can’t be broken and some consequences are non-negotiable. However, kids who have a solid understanding of these life fundamentals will have a good chance at successfully negotiating the wonderful challenges and opportunities that life presents every day.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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